Review: House in the Fields

There’s probably no more momentous development in the practice of filmmaking since the dawn of the millennium than the expansion of the documentary genre beyond its classic parameters. At one time the idea that the documentary filmmaker is a kind of anthropologist, in that they should have as little impact on their subject as possible, was sacrosanct, but current filmmakers have taken greater liberties in their interactions without expressing any misgivings. Often, in fact, the interaction is the point of the film.

Tala Hadid’s House in the Fields is almost anthropological by definition. The British filmmaker, whose mother is Moroccan, spent a good deal of time in a village in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco getting to know the people there, particularly two teenage sisters, in hopes of finding out what they wanted from life. Reportedly, she didn’t even show her camera to her subjects until weeks into her stay. This was a vital consideration because although the village was along a path that was destined to be developed by the state, the development never came, thus leaving the village to its unchanging cycle of seasons. But the village was not inured to change, and that’s what fascinated her.

The two girls, 16-year-old Khadija and her older sister Fatima, are the focus, and many of their scenes are so intimately shot that the viewer can’t help but wonder if they were staged. In this village, the men play and the women work, and though the sisters do attend school, most of the time we see them weaving. According to custom, they are the targets of matchmakers who try to set them up with eligible men, many of whom are not that young. Hadid illustrates the psychological effect these customs have on teenage girls by focusing on their affection for one another. They can only really talk openly with other girls and women, a notion that is hardly surprising but nevertheless quite fascinating when placed in relief against the daily doings of the village. Khadija and Fatima lay in bed together laughing about their teacher and the smell of his feet, but they also talk about their freedom as women, not so much because of their exposure to outside ideas (which is available), but simply because they are sentient creatures who inevitably regret their restrictions by a social order. 

Matters come to a head during a marriage ritual where conflicting feelings come to the fore. There’s a sadness to the bride’s demeanor that is reflected in the conversations among other girls as to whether they really want to get married, and it’s difficult to tell if Hadid prompted these conversations or if they emerged organically. For much of the second half of the film, which is, incidentally, profoundly beautiful in its merging of nature and human activity, the viewer may be frustrated trying to decide how much the filmmaker brought about what is shown on screen. And yet, it still feels like real life. 

In Berber. Now playing in Tokyo at Uplink Shibuya (03-6825-5503).

House in the Fields home page in Japanese

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